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In Praise of Predictability - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
In Praise of Predictability
Brought on by the recent spate of Harry Potter wank by someone who thought that JKR's ruling out of a Draco/Hermione romance ruined the suspense and made everything predictable--the letter written included a vague summary, saying, "Well, I'll bet I know what will happen if you're going to rule out writing a grown-up plot--Harry will defeat Voldemort, and Ron and Hermione will get together, and Harry and Ginny will get together, and it will all be stupid and predictable!!!!"

(Obviously, a paraphrase. I don't even remember where the actual wank is.)

I'm not writing to talk about the ships, since I already did. Or even to talk specifically about Harry Potter.

I want to praise predictability.

I am planning to do a series of essays about J.R.R. Tolkien's marvelous essay, "On Fairy Stories," and I'll talk about this more at length when I get there (and have his exact quote handy). The paraphrase, though, is that reading a fairy story feels--and should feel--like one is rediscovering a story one heard long ago, remembering it as you go.

I believe that stories like this are the best kind of stories, the kind that feel like old friends. And you know what? If they're well-done, then they are predictable.

Oh, I don't mean we should be able to guess every particular. I don't know yet how Anakin ends up in a lava pit, and I'm dying to find out. But the broad kinds of guesses ("Harry will defeat Voldemort somehow or other" or "There will be a happy ending of some sort") bloody well should be predictable. If they aren't, the author is doing something wrong, not handling the genre properly.

We knew, in Star Wars, that the Rebels would defeat the evil Empire, and once the romance was introduced, that Han and Leia would end up together. We didn't know that the Empire would be defeated by Luke throwing aside his lightsaber and offering to sacrifice himself to reach his father. We didn't know that Leia would try to rescue Han by sneaking in as a bounty hunter. But we knew that the Empire would be defeated and Han rescued. The redemption of Vader, when looked at in retrospect, probably could have been predicted, but since it was integrated into the specific plot and was in fact a point of suspense--would it work? would it not work?--I don't hold it to the rule of predictability. The question of whether or not the Empire would fall would have been a silly one to try and draw suspense from... of course the Empire was going to fall. It's a fairy tale, and fairy tales operate on what Tolkien called the "Eucatastrophe"--the sudden, joyous turn. (Again, more later.)

By the same token, of course Voldemort is going to be defeated. I will go out on a limb here and say that it will cost some kind of sacrifice on Harry's part which will be very painful, but in the end, the wizarding world is saved and the good people rewarded (and the bad punished). Maybe Harry himself will be rewarded, maybe he won't--Frodo Baggins sure got the raw end of a deal--but the world itself will be saved from the present threat and it will be due to the actions of the hero.

That's why when I hear, "It's too predictable!" as a reason for not liking a 'ship, or a plot event, or a conversation, or just about anything, my first thought is, "Well, yeah... what's your point?" And that's why in the previous entry on shipping, I questioned how people who thought a relationship was "too predictable" were going to react to what is, in all likelihood, a very predictable plot, simply because of the kind of story it is.

And the obligatory meme, gakked from quickquote
Your belonging in The Mysteries of Udolpho is quite
evident; a world of intrigue, melancholy,
sublimity and terror. You belong where there
are danger, gloomy edifices, and evil Italian
guardians. Your passion for the passion of the
Mediterranean, the divine contemplation of
nature, and for adventure stories, makes you a
prime contender for a spot in a gothic romance.

Which Classic Novel do You Belong In?
brought to you by Quizilla
12 comments or Leave a comment
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: March 25th, 2004 01:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
If you haven't already, you may wish to find and read Norman Spinrad's essay "The Emperor of Everything."

In this essay, which first appeared in a 1988 issue of IASFM, Spinrad described how many popular books and films boil down to very similar plot: about the lowly little orphan from the middle of nowhere [Luke Skywalker/King Arthur/Garion (David Eddings)/Ender Wiggins] who doesn't know he is actually destined to be, well, the Emperor of Everything.
It's been a long time since I read the essay, but it manages to provide a brief outline to the trope that works for many popular SF stories. Related to Campbell's Hero myth, but more specific...

The article is collected in Spinrad's book Science fiction in the real world, or if you really want I can probably dig up/out my copy of the original magazine and photocopy it for you if you really want.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 25th, 2004 01:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, cool. I'm at work. I'll go find it. Thanks for the tip!
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 25th, 2004 03:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
Okay, read it.

While I disagree with his apparent premise that every character who doesn't take the Boddhisatva route is inevitably Hitlerian, I do agree that of course, it's a how-to manual for badfic as well as good.

I don't necessarily believe that the character has to give up his power (or that Speaker for the Dead was could live without Ender, for that matter!), but I think that the major difference between bad stories of this type and good stories of this type is that the hero experiences real pain and real loss, and pays for his victory in a tangible way. Frodo loses not only his finger, but his ability to love what he had once loved. Anakin ends up loses his life (while Luke must relinquish what he wanted most all along--his father). And Harry has already lost Sirius. I'm not of the "Harry must die" school, or of the group that believes that Remus has to die for the sins of the Marauders. I think Dumbledore will die, but that's part of the dynamic--the main Mentor figure has an expiration date on the package. But where it would go wrong would be if Harry defeated Voldemort married the girl of his dreams (whether it's Ginny, Hermione, or Luna), is named the Minister of Magic, and lives with no scars. Oh, and gets Sirius back from behind the veil and reanimates his parents while he's at it. I think he could have one of those things--the whole thrust of the story has been toward Harry finding and accepting the love of a family, so it would be right for him to end up with that. But if he took his victory over Voldemort and parlayed it into a lot of political power and became "the Emperor of Everything," that would be wrong. Tempting--so many things could be fixed!--but wrong.

On the other hand, if the hero's flaw is that he avoids responsibility, then putting him in reluctant power at the end may be the best idea. Lots of people, after all, shirk the responsibilities that their various gifts give them, because being a king really isn't a happy thing to be.

Oh, well. I'm rambling now. Thanks for the rec!
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: March 25th, 2004 03:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
So, one further question now you've read the essay. How much overlap is there between badly-done Emperors of Everything and Mary Sue fics?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 25th, 2004 03:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heh. I think it's a pretty concise definition of a Mary Sue story.
lilac_bearry From: lilac_bearry Date: March 25th, 2004 02:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
Here, here!!!!


silverhill From: silverhill Date: March 25th, 2004 03:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
Quite true. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with predictability.

And if predictability were so bad, why would people ever re-read anything?

A well-done story keeps that sense of discovery. Example: After the first time I read "Song in the Silence" by Elizabeth Kerner, I wondered whether it would hold up at all to repeated readings. So much of the story is about discovering new things. The main character encounters new places, new people, abilities she didn't know she had. Plus there's a big surprise plot-wise.

But the book holds up wonderfully well to multiple readings. It's completely predictable in the sense that I know everything that's going to happen. But it succeeds for two reasons: 1) Predictable is not the same thing as cliche. 2) Even though I know what's going to happen, the characters don't. So when I re-read it, I go on the voyage of discovery with them.

I mentioned a specific book, but it's true of any good book.

I love reading your journal, Fern. You always have such intelligent, thought-provoking things to say.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 25th, 2004 03:55 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!
h311ybean From: h311ybean Date: March 25th, 2004 10:06 pm (UTC) (Link)

What's predictable? We still don't know for sure what's going to happen in HP canon. I mean, JKR's hints are certainly pointing in a given direction, but I have no definite idea what I'm going to read in the book. These hints make me more excited to see the finished product, not the other way around.

Hi, Fern :) This is Ara Kane from the Sugar Quill. Hope you don't mind if I add you to my Friends List!
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 25th, 2004 11:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
Don't mind at all. I love friends. :)

Exactly. I think the grand sweep of the thing is very predictable--it's like the steps of a waltz. At the same time, you never know exactly how it's going to get there, or the particulars of how it's going to work.
ashtur From: ashtur Date: March 25th, 2004 10:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
Whoa! The only way that the books can have an adult plot is if Draco and Hermione somehow become an item? That's just, um... well... silly!

Conventions are a basic part of storytelling for a basic reason. They are a good idea. Yes, sometimes you can create a good story by breaking conventions (George R.R. Martin seems to be doing that in his Song of Ice and Fire books, I'm still not sure who the hero/ine is). Yet, after a certain point, breaking convention itself becomes a convention.

Anyway, following conventions works because those things appeal to an essential part of our nature. We want to see the hero triumphant. We want to see the villian get what's coming to them. There is still a great deal of room for individual variation in the story. Will Harry lose his life in defeating Voldemort? I'd have to guess no, but notice I used the word "guess". I don't know for sure.

I suppose we could go all out to break convention, and at the end of book 7, Voldemort would stant over the fallen corpse of Harry, and institute a reign of terror like no other. That would certainly break convention. I'd also feel severely cheated.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 26th, 2004 05:55 am (UTC) (Link)


Conventions are what make literature great - you have to know the rules, and even if you then break them, your knowledge of them influences how you break them. Conventions define the stories that go against them just as much as the stories that follow them.

Using so-called predictability well is what makes good fairy stories transcendent. Yes, we know good will triumph over evil - but how?? It's watching things get lower and lower, and more and more hopeless and then suddenly coming upon that moment when everything turns, and often in a completely unpredicted manner, the predicted ending comes. If it's done poorly, of course, it's simply banal, but done right it's the best sort of storytelling.
12 comments or Leave a comment